Finding a Diamond in the Rough

IMG_1308As I struggled to kick free of the clinging aquatic near-shore grasses, I suddenly felt and probably looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.


I was chest deep in the lower Susquehanna River waiting for the start of the International Distance of Piranha Sport’s Diamond in the Rough triathlon. What is “international distance” you ask? Fair question. Translation: Some distance longer than an Olympic distance triathlon but shorter than a half-ironman. Really it can be whatever distance the race director’s chosen course works out to be but typically significantly longer than a sprint. Since there is no uniform measurement for “international” distance, there really is no pressure to PR. Additionally, for 2015 Piranha Sports made the decision to part ways with USA Triathlon to keep race costs down so races a) are quite a bit less expensive b) don’t count toward your USAT ranking. Since my ranking is typically somewhere between 3 billionth and “Are you sure you raced this year?” I didn’t (and don’t) really care about race ranking points thus was here to have fun and pretty much only to impress myself which is really easy to do.

Diamond in the Rough Triathlon took place at Perryville Town Park, in Perryville, Md. The international distance involved a 1 mile swim, a 27 mile bike, and a 5 mile run on what would turn out to be a very pleasant day. Despite an early morning rain shower, it was sunny with low humidity and a high only into the mid-80s. Basically, an ideal summer day.

On this day there was no swim warm-up available so I wanted to get into the water at the earliest possible opportunity. First Neil Semmel (Grand Poobah of Piranha Sports) Neilgave us a quick course description for the swim. “See that  yellow buoy waaayyyy out there? Swim to that. Then turn and swim to that next yellow buoy waaayyyyy over there”.  Okay Neil. It probably isn’t necessary to emphasize how far away the buoys are. Some of us have pretty fragile swim confidence and are perfectly willing to just go waaaaayyy over there to the parking lot and go home.

But as Neil kept talking we were getting into the water. The Chesapeake bay and it’s tributaries are relatively shallow and I was surprised when I hopped off the steps that I couldn’t stand. There was also a noticeable current. I cleared the pier and found shallower water and footing so I could adjust my goggles and make sure they didn’t leak and got a quick swim warm-up in. Myself and several other athletes found ourselves wrapped in long green spaghetti-like strands draped over our shoulders, necks, and faces. We looked at each other and laughed. A few yards into deeper water and all was well.

Other than reduced cost, breaking away from USAT gives Neil the flexibility to use his own wetsuit rules. He immediately made all of his events wetsuit legal. For those not familiar with why this is important, a wetsuit makes a swimmer more buoyant and faster in the water. It also instills confidence for many because it acts as somewhat of a PFD. It would be really, really hard to submerge in a triathlon wetsuit. USAT rules state that a wetsuit can not be used at a water temperature of 76 degrees or higher if the competitor wants to be eligible for awards. There is an absolute cutoff at around 81 degrees for most races. Wetsuit use in extremely warm water  can cause over-heating and be hazardous. For our race the normally warm Susquehanna river had been cooled to 78 degrees for race day. Not wetsuit legal by USAT standards, but since we were not racing USAT rules, most participants chose to use the suit. I had debated wetsuit or no and had been training recently without it but on Coach Mark’s advice decided to use it. This was a good decision.

A wetsuit provides speed, flotation, and confidence
A wetsuit provides speed, flotation, and confidence

We were not in the water long when Neil began to give us the count down from about 90 seconds. I lined up wide which is my preference and waited for the command to go. Normally my stomach would be in knots and my heart would be racing at the start of a long swim. Not so today. The calm water, good training and a good plan had me confident and serene. “Go go go!”, Neil shouted from the dock. 142 men began pulling themselves through the Susquehanna.

Credit: Piranha Sports

The start was a bit chaotic. In the past, this was absolutely terrifying to me. Going back to my earlier Piranha Sports race at Devilman this year, I had enjoyed the start. Today, it was not so much enjoyment as a workman-like attitude of moving in and around my fellow competitors as we sought our share of the water to paddle in. Whack. A shot to the back of the head. Whoa. Watch out for that foot! Hmmm . . a handful of wetsuit. Pretty sure I just grabbed some dude’s butt. It probably won’t be the last time.

Things stayed tightly packed for most of the first leg of the swim but began to thin out toward the first way-out-there yellow buoy. I quickly developed a good stroking/sighting rhythm. 5 strokes and sight. I focused on my technique and enjoyed the added buoyancy of the wetsuit. I sighted more frequently as needed whether it was approaching the buoy or knowing I was coming up on a group of slower swimmers I’d need to navigate through. (It’s so cool that this is a concern these days.)

About a third of the way through the second leg of the swim, I was able to extend my sighting window to 6 or 7 strokes. It was a calm day with flat water and it was easy to stay on course despite the fact that there were no real landmarks to line up the second buoy. This leg was straight into the current and it took noticeably longer to get way-over-there and turn inland. Once turned, there was a huge building and water tower to sight off of for turn 3, the turn that would take us back toward the dock with the current.

The swim is a funny animal for me. In my mind I dread it. I often consider switching to duathlon as a way to avoid it. For years (including most of last year) I fought with major swim demons induced by asthma, claustrophobia, and my own lack of confidence in the water. But the most satisfying moment for me in any triathlon at any distance is that moment I take the first step out of the water. Every athlete be they runner, cyclist, Spartan, or whatever lives to cross the finish line and feel the sense of accomplishment wash over them like warm bath water on a cold day. As triathletes, we are fortunate in that we get to cross the finish line several times during the day. I beamed an inward smile knowing it was a solid swim, and that no yellow swim caps from the wave behind ours caught me.

I am generally conservative about running through transition but even more so for this one. The pier was slick from all the sprint athletes and those that had come out of the water ahead of me so I carefully made my way up the pier and steps pulling the zipper on my wetsuit as I went.  Once securely on good footing on the path to T1 I broke into an easy trot across the mat into transition. Swim 28:24.

The Mid-Atlantic region has been plagued by severe storms since late spring. These are full of energy and dump inches of water in short periods of time on all in their path. Perryville Town Park was not missed and transition was a bit muddy and sloppy. While not quite the quagmire of Eagleman 2013, it was still difficult at best to find solid footing to be able to rip the legs of the wetsuit off and equally difficult to get cycling shoes on without sinking into the mud. My T spot had 3 or 4 pesky, wet holes my foot would disappear into if I wasn’t careful. The result was a bit more dancing around than I would normally care for and a slow T1 time of 2:20.

Credit: Piranha Sports
Credit: Piranha Sports

Once dewetsuited (not a real word), sufficiently muddied, and thoroughly sprayed down with Neutrogena Wet Skin sunscreen, I headed down the muddy trail to the mount area. Neil Semmel is nothing if not consistent. The mount area is never all that close to transition but rather waaaayyy over there. A bit of a jog later, I mounted Betty, clipped in and headed down the windy road out of the park and onto Ikea Way. Moments later, a familiar looking mostly-pink tri kit went zipping by on a shiny Cervelo P3. It was my friend and really awesome tri-gal Susanne Vanzijl. Outwardly I cheered “Go Susanne”! Inwardly I celebrated. In years past she would have blown by me somewhere during the swim even with a 5 minute head start. Some guys get self-conscious about being “chicked” but Susanne and her ilk are pretty special athletes with good training and raw talent that I’ll never be able to match. Susanne would go on to outrun her good friend Katrina to finish as first overall female .

The bike course wound through Perryville on somewhat flat roads for a bit. But there is only one way out of bay shore towns and that is typically uphill so uphill we went. Poor Betty was forced to race as a dirty, greasy, disheveled mess. I had not had time to properly bathe her pretty frame or clean the drivetrain. I had slathered on a fresh coat of Rock ‘N Roll Gold chain lube and hoped for the best. I also had to pay a visit to Keswick Cycle in Glenside, PA where Chad had installed a brand-new Di2 9000 system this past winter. It had required a slight tweak as the cassette was not holding the chain on the biggest gear of the cassette. That was done Thursday and I had not had a chance to ride since. Going up the first hill I hit the button to drop to the small chain ring and heard a funny noise. I looked down and for the first time in 3 years with electronic shifting I had dropped a chain. I hopped off, reset the chain and was back on the pedals lickety split. Some tentative trial and error shifting couldn’t reproduce the problem, and I chalked it up to a) being really cross chained when I dropped down to the smaller ring b) having a heavy layer of grime. Betty has since had a well-deserved cleaning and I will do some experimenting to see if Chad needs to tweak the system a bit more. I promptly forgot about being careful shifting and had no further trouble the rest of the day.

The bike course was fun. Some describe it as “really hilly” but it seemed sort of normal compared to riding around home in Berks County. There are few places I ride that are flat. There was one hairpin turn at the bottom of a descent that, without proper warning could cause issues but the volunteers were on-hand to slow us down. Only once did I see intentional cheating in the form of a woman on the wheel of a guy. At first I thought it might be innocent. Some guys can be real jackasses when women go to pass them. But then we hit the big climb out of Port Deposit and he repeatedly slowed and looked back to see where she was, clearly waiting for her. There was no prize purse, no USAT ranking points, no Kona qualifying points, and no other big reward for finishing on the podium in this event. Were they practicing for cheating on another day? I don’t know. I’ll never “get” the cheating mentality.

After Port Deposit we rolled through the only aid station where I grabbed an icy cold bottle of water, drank some, sprayed a bunch over my head, pitched the bottle and rolled on. There were only 6 more miles or so to go and the hills were behind me. As I made my way to the finish, I saw the leader out on the run and well out in front of 2nd place cruising toward the turnaround. I shouted encouragement and headed toward the windy road into the park where a few spectators lined the road and cheered me on. One of the park’s numerous deer picked up her head and watched me roll by while slowly chewing a mouthful of grass. “Hi Momma”. I got back to the mount/dismount line, hopped off and trotted along toward transition and “Bike In”. Bike time: 1:30:14.

For the second straight race I had forgotten to calibrate my Garmin 310XT to my power meter. I normally ride with a different bike computer so Betty and my 310 aren’t normally talking to one another. As a result, the ride was purely on perceived effort. I feel like I probably undercooked the bike a bit.

I re-racked a now-muddy Betty, and proceeded with the delicate process of changing shoes without sinking into the mud and water of transition. Needless to say it wasn’t getting any better as the day went on. I managed to swap shoes, grab my hat, race belt, and at the last moment my Garmin from the bike, and head toward run out. I was already fantasizing about the luxury of flopping down in the grass post-race. T2: 2:04.

There was a Clydesdale competitor whom I had swapped places with for the entire bike. He and I left T2 together but I quickly left him behind on the run. The run was gloriously flat and fast. It was 2.5 miles out and 2.5 miles back with really more aid stations than were needed. But better to have than not I guess.

The run went along the river through the park, through the grounds of the VA hospital, and out along the main street of Perryville. There we turned around and headed back. There was an aid station at the turn where I grabbed a cup of Gatorade, sipped a bit, and then poured a cup of water over my head. I glanced at my Garmin now and again but mostly ran on feel chasing down one competitor after another although the field was a bit spread out. There is a point in any transition run where running no longer feels slow and awkward but suddenly is just running. It is at that point that you pick up speed, and “feel” your form. Typically for me this moment come around 18-20 minutes in which means for a short distance such as this, I am more than half-way done before I can actually focus on just running. Still, it feels good when you realize the heavy legs left from the bike are gone.

The 4th mile went very quick with much of it in the shade. Toward the end of that mile, I began focusing on short landmarks to keep pace for the last mile. One at a time these landmarks passed until I could see the big, inflatable “finish” arch. I passed on athlete in my age group with about ¾ of a mile to go. As I got to the finish chute I saw a gentleman  running in front of me who fit the age-group profile. I had picked up the pace with a ½ mile to go and was starting to flag a bit. I thought “Oh no”. I looked at his calf and sure enough. M45-49. Great. There was about 40 feet to the finish line and I was 10 feet behind him. Time to launch a closing sprint. I was able to dash past him and across the line. I immediately eyed up a shady patch of grass just to the left and made a bee line. A young lady volunteer said “I need your chip”. I said “I need to sit down”. I think she may have been afraid Grandpa was going to keel over so followed me out while I flopped down in the cool grass. I looked up and she presented me with a cup of ice cold water. It was heavenly. I gladly swilled it down while she removed my timing chip.

I climbed out of the grass and spotted Susanne and Katrina spraying themselves down with a garden hose set out for that purpose. That sounded wonderful so I joined the party and soaked myself head to toe. Susanne and I then went to retrieve things we left at the start (flip flops, inhaler, etc.) and then stopped to clean out transition. While I was packing up my T area I overheard a discussion about “my Garmin”. Hmmm. My Garmin. Perhaps I should hit stop.

Susanne and Katrina 1st & 2nd overall ladies

I am usually not hungry after a race but found myself to be famished. I stopped by the picnic pavilion and got my money’s worth of post race food in the form of a chicken salad wrap, apple, and some sort of tasty whole grain crisps. I waited around to snap a couple of pics of Susanne & Katrina on the podium and then decided to engage the one piece of triathlon equipment few of my competitors have. I went back to the RV flipped on the water heater and had a luxurious post-race hot shower. 

Shower & bathroom included


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